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A gunman, identified as 29-year-old Omar Mateen, killed 49 people and injured 53 at Pulse, a popular gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida on Sunday, June 12. Mateen, too, was killed after police broke into the building, where he was holding 30 more people hostage for several hours, and shot him. The night is known as the deadliest shooting in modern U.S. history.

Why The Words We Use After a Tragedy Matter

Was the Orlando attack an act of terror or a hate crime? Perhaps it was both.
Reno Tahoe/flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Was the Orlando attack an act of terror or a hate crime? Perhaps it was both.

From Texas Standard:

After yesterday's broadcast, which concluded with a roundup of reaction to the Orlando shooting from Texans on social media, Texas Standard received a comment from a listener who noted what he considered to be a conspicuous absence of something in the conversation – the mention of words like "ISIS" and "terrorism."

This comment plays into something bigger: how we choose what words to use when speaking about an unspeakable tragedy. What's the significance of the rhetoric surrounding events like the Orlando massacre?

Jennifer Wingard, professor of rhetoric at the University of Houston, says that the words we use have shifted significantly since 9/11, when terrorism became tied to radical Islamism in the nation's consciousness.

"That is when terrorism became the lingua franca for a way our country began to live," Wingard says. "From the speeches, from development of the Patriot Act, the way we had to 'If you see something, say something' – all of those kinds of local and national works became the way we began to police ourselves."

Following the shooting, two different discourses emerged, Wingard says. On the Democratic side, the discussion turned to gun control, while conservatives focused on jihadism and terrorism. But something else has been missing from the discussion.

"What has kind of fallen is the middle is the fact that this happened on National Pride Weekend to a particular class of individuals, the LGBTQ community, who have been under political attack both with all these bathroom laws," she says, "as well as other laws in North Carolina and Alabama recently."

But a danger of talking about a tragedy in these highly politicized terms is that parts of the complex situation get overlooked. Wingard says that when both the victims and the perpetrators carry multiple identities, it leads to looking at the situation as "hierarchy of oppression" – comparing who is more victimized and oppressed – which takes away from meaningful conversation.

"It really separates any kind of coalition building that can happen between people who want to find protection and allies or to create change," she says. "It becomes a way to individualize the argument and place it on a particular individual or a particular individual's beliefs, and then their group affiliation, instead of looking at a more systemic conversation that could happen."

This segment was produced with the help of Texas Standard intern Alex Daily.

Copyright 2020 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Rhonda is the newest member of the KUT News team, joining in late 2013 as producer for KUT's new daily news program, The Texas Standard. Rhonda will forever be known as the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the first full-time hire for The Texas Standard?” She’s an Iowa native who got her start in public radio at WFSU in Tallahassee, while getting her Master's Degree in Library Science at Florida State University. Prior to joining KUT and The Texas Standard, Rhonda was a producer for Wisconsin Public Radio.